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Synthpiana Jones

and The Sample Of Doom | Howard Jones

common sense and uncommon synths


No, we lie. Howard Jones was smiling, Paul Colbert was scribbling, Jon Blackmore was focusing and the keyboards were sequencing.

Shards of January ice skitter across the Farmyard Studio kitchen floor as Howard Jones stamps his feet back to life. He apologises for being half-an-hour late. No, it wasn't the heavy traffic, nor the arctic-inspired driving conditions. It's just that they were up until 4.00 this morning putting the finishing touches to the new single 'Things Can Only Get Better', and they had.

Got better, that is. Seems it was the decision to use 'real' brass players, the TKO horns, that clinched it. They'd been drafted in to perform the parts he'd once composed for synths, and the transformation had been magical.

He's always really wanted a club/dance floor hit, and this might be it, he tells us, but not too emphatically. Outwardly calm, gently spoken and inherently cautious, he's not a man for wild pronouncements.

This is Howard Jones' second sojourn at Farmyard — a peaceful, superbly equipped 24-track at the far end of the Metropolitan line. 'Human's Lib' was born there and he's again teamed up with producer Rupert Hine, plus a small warehouse of keyboards and sequencers, to record the 12 tracks of 'Dream Into Action'. "Only ten will go on the album," he informs. "I wanted to put all 12 on, but you lose quality and level, and it's the people with the less expensive hi-fi who suffer. Twenty minutes a side is about right... at least it makes for some good value B sides."

It's almost exactly a year ago since One Two conversed with the Jones, and in the ensuing 12 months, his keyboards have apparently conquered the mystery of cellular division — there's now two of almost everything.

Two DX7s, two Drumulators, two Roland MSQ700s... meanwhile the Moog Prodigy and TR808 drum machine have seemingly gone to the great storeroom in the sky.

The complete keyboard collection is set-up in the Farmyard control room in the space between the computer-aided Solid State Logic desk and the glass doors of the main booth. Perhaps a tour would be in order?

"The Prophet T8 I only use now as a keyboard to control all the others, even the Emulator II — I really like the T8's action, but as a synth I find it difficult to understand, and I've lost interest.

"I've been a piano player since I was seven and that's still my favourite instrument. At home I've just got my Yamaha CP80 which was secondhand. It's brilliant, so reliable. I remember we used it in Japan on tour. It was tuned there, once, and when we got back I used it on the album without having to touch it.

"The JP8 I probably use more than ever. It's one of those synths that has such a beautiful analogue sound; it's such a contrast to the DXs. I'm still finding new sounds on it, and again, it never goes wrong. I've got a box which converts the DCB output to MIDI, but it doesn't respond quite quickly enough when you play it from the MSQ sequencers. That can lead to some interesting effects but it won't articulate the notes fast enough, so I usually just play it straight."

Below the JP8 is a Roland Juno 60 which, to my surprise, was the keyboard responsible for the vast and fabulously soft string sound on 'Hide and Seek'. I'd always suspected it was the Prophet T8 but, no, it was the 60 with the filter resonance backed off from the factory preset level, then treated strongly with a Roland Dimension D chorus.

Subterranean to that is one of the oldest surviving devices in the Jones' lexicon — a Sequential Circuits Pro-One, still responsible for many of the single note bass lines. The Pro-One can only store two sequences at a time, and visitors to Howard Jones' gigs will be used to seeing him load new riffs between numbers. Not any more.


"I've had an extra memory section put in that can store more sequences. They're all the normal length for Pro-One sequences but there are ten of them. I step through the memory to get to the one I want. The Pro-One still works on an external pulse so it steps through the notes in the sequence each time it gets an audio signal — it's really odd, that's why I still use it. What I should do now is get it MIDIed. Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins) is having his done."

Turning to the DX7s stacked atop each other perversely reveals more about Howard Jones than it does about digital synthesis. He hasn't learnt how to programme them, he says. It steals from time which could be spent writing. There are many people around who can manipulate DXs, but only one who can write Howard Jones' tracks. He knows what he does best — songwriting — and isn't egoistic enough to believe he ought to be master of every technology under his control.

"I get a lot of new cartridges from SYCO with all the different sounds that people have put in. I love the plucky sounds, the acoustic guitars and so on, and when you combine two DX7s, you get a composite sound which is so much more interesting and less likely to be cliched. I'd never use them for string or sustain things."

Separated from the bulk of the layered keyboards over by the desk, is the Emulator II — a position it maintains in stage life. The Emulator and DXs are remote, at the back of the stage, operated MIDI-wise by one of Yamaha's KX5, portable keyboards. The KX5 is a boon, confirms Howard, but the Jones team haven't yet succeeded in coaxing the MIDI to transfer touch sensitive info to the Emulator. Howard Jones was unimpressed by the Emu I, declaring its samples dull and its operations finicky. The II has won him round.

"It's fabulous, the touch sensitivity and quality of the samples are superb.

"We've sampled voices quite a bit — umms and arrs — and some recorders. Also good for percussion, and I use their bass synth sound. We didn't sample a piano, but we did change the filter on one of their own piano samples and it sounded incredible. We got the MSQ700s to play it."

The Emulator II's quick and easy sampling procedure also came in for praise. You set the threshold level so it begins sampling as soon as a signal of the correct strength arrives at the input, you also tell it how long to sample for. The rest is automatic. Forget about the Emu, just hit what needs hitting.

It's been interesting watching the effect 'mimicing' keyboards like the Fairlight and Emulator have had on real instruments, he says. "Our bass player Martin is having special basses built for him that can go down to low Cs and Ds. That's what people are used to hearing from keyboards.

"And these keyboards make work for people. I wouldn't have thought of getting the TKO horns in if I hadn't had the Emulator and worked out the brass parts."

Planning for horns, or any other instrument, is a large part of the fascination he feels for songwriting. Of all the stages in writing/recording a song, what is the moment he relishes most? "I love putting the rhythm tracks together," is the reply "Being a drummer... being a bass player or guitarist... to think how they would and put it together as a jigsaw, that's a real thrill. I've always liked the idea of imagining an instrument, and how you would play it.

"It's how classical composers worked," he says. They never knew how it would sound until the first rehearsal. He swiftly denys that his material can be compared in that way, of course.

Even the concept of a rehearsal turns foggy with machines such as the MSQ700s. For this album, 50 per cent of the synth parts had been practised, perfected and finalised within the sequencers before a single inch of tape was used.


With all this reliance on digital 'musicians', didn't he miss 'banding' it with other musicians? "No, I don't, though I do like working with other people. I've got so many ideas of my own. I don't particularly feel the need for it. I just love doing it, orchestrating.

"For example a good rhythm track should fit together, nothing should be in competition. It should be understated and when you want something to poke through, there ought to be room. That's something which is easier to produce when you're working on your own — not fighting with yourself."

Perhaps that made him difficult to work with? No he didn't think so, at least nobody had ever said so. The personal side of H. Jones' added, with surprising force: "I would be very upset if people thought I was difficult. It's one of those things you try to get right first of all. FORGET the music. If you're a disgusting person then it's all a waste of time. Human things come first."

Yet, by controversial coincidence, it's the most mechanical and electronic item in his set up that he names as the Howard Jones' instrument of the year... the Roland MSQ700.

"The best instrument I've come across all year, the most creative instrument, if any one thing is at the heart of what I do, this is.

"What I like most is the way it corrects what you play on the keyboard to certain note values, 16ths, 8ths, etc. When it plays back, it causes the notes to be played in a... well... it's really difficult to describe, but it makes notes so short, you couldn't actually play them. When you put a really 'feely' part into it, the part comes out changed, somehow, chopped and pulled into line. It remembers touch sensitivity as well, it's been the source of so many ideas."

You can hear the effect on the Clavinet parts that run through 'Things Can Only Get Better' — a snappiness that defies the human wrist. It's proof, if proof were needed, of the wildly varied opinions of musicians. It's this very quality of the MSQ700 that some keyboard players abhor, claiming it merely cuts-dead misbehaving notes instead of accurately auto-correcting them.

The two MSQs (one wasn't enough to remember an entire set) have also enabled him to stay live on gigs — no tape recorders running. On tape, or on chip — is there honestly a difference? "I won't use tapes. I know that on the surface it doesn't seem different to a sequencer but with a sequenced line you can eq it for individual halls, use effects, or pull it out altogether if you want to extend a song and go into a jam." A brave claim, but does it ever happen? "Yes, quite often. Very few songs are completely the same from beginning to end, that's one thing I have retained. And if you want to change the structure of a song on tour, alter the tempo, whatever, you can do it. It's like having another member of the band who can rearrange what he does. You can't do that with a tape."

At Farmyard the MSQs have frequently been commanding three or four synths at once, on the same line — MIDI channel 1 for the two DXs, MIDI channel 2 for Emulator II bass lines was a common configuration, and the sequencers do store fairly complex polyphonic lines, not just fill in chords.

Though he's confident of being able to take the Farmyard Sound onto the road, the major problem will be selecting the tracks and sounds for each number. Until someone devises a MIDI unit, like Simmons SDS7, that can recall a different 'kit' of synth memories for each song, he'll continue to rely on a roadie changing the remote synths and loading up the Emulator II discs.

MIDI though 'fab' isn't that organised yet. "Weird things can happen to MIDI information", relates Mr Jones, "Sometimes it can corrupt memory. We've found that if you hold down a note somewhere along the line, it can alter the memories of the DX7 — we can't understand it, yet."

Mention of the Simmons brings us to the Howard Jones drum set up. He does in fact use an SDS7 driven by the SDS6 sequencer, plus two Drumulators (to provide the memory for a whole set). In practice 'Dream Into Action' was generally completed using one drum machine per track, not mixing or matching sounds. Minutes were spent enthusing over the cavernous sound of the Drumulator's 'Rock' chip, both of us having spotted it on 'Tears For Fears' single 'Shout', though H.J. reckoned they'd substituted another bass drum.

"When I'm writing I like to have one pattern, initially. When the song starts to grow I might then arrange it with three patterns and then, in the studio, do the complete, detailed arrangement. I'm not a big 'fill' person so I don't use drum fills. They're too cliched for me, and I prefer to put in 'musical moments'.

"It's a better way of working than having a complicated drum arrangement at the start. You know you're getting off on the song, not your complicated programming."

Had he ever considered taking the Fairlight path of one master instrument to do all the work, from first moments of inspiration to eventual 12in mix? No, not the Jones method, it turns out. "What I've got at the moment is 'modular', I can keep slotting things in as new they come out, like the MSQs. A Fairlight is a Fairlight. Anyway, everyone's got one."

Perhaps the Fairlight would be too tempting. He admits to being aware, and concerned, about habit. "When I do write I always try to have my keyboards set up differently, connected in another way so I never fall into the same patterns."

Trademarks are another bloom to be cautiously tended. "Er... Aflat, Bflat, C over a C pedal occurs quite often," he confides, "'What Is Love' is a classic." More dangerously observable are sound effects such as the sampled, orchestral crescendo which was at its peak on Paul Young's 'Playhouse...' single, then became grossly overpopular.

"What we've done is make sure that nothing is left exposed in the mix; special effects are always in combination with something else. A pronounced effect dates your work... almost to the month. If you're the first one to come across something very original, okay you should use it strongly, but if you know it's current, it's important to be careful."

Listeners should detect an overall hardening of the sound in the new album, tougher and more metallic than 'Human's Lib'. He also felt they had made innovative use of the combined DX7s. "There are a lot of unusual DX sounds. I really like one in 'Dream Into Action' which is a sort of industrial percussion, very 1980's."

There is a desire to be different in Howard Jones. The avoidance of cliches and concern for how other songwriters work are common homing beacons in the conversation. "I've never had a four-track cassette recorder at home," he remarks at one point, completely at odds with the mass of time-saving technology around him. "I've always done everything live onto two-track. I prefer it that way because it makes me work differently to everybody else."

What he has recently acquired is the Akai MG1212 mixer/recorder — a massive, 'portable' 12-track studio, reviewed in last month's One Two.

We found the Akai good quality and highly promising, but distinctly unweildy and uncertain due to its use of totally non-standard ½in cassettes. Howard Jones worships it. "It's brilliant. It's so simple to use. I didn't even read the manual. I just wanted to record on it as soon as I got it home, and I was able to."

It must be one of the few invasions of technology into the Jones' household as he still writes all the songs on the CP80.

Now, a proper Grand Piano — that would be something. I mentioned that Thomas Dolby had been so dedicated to the idea, he'd had a Futon mattress made to fit the top of his eight foot Steinway, that being the only way he could squeeze it into the bedroom. If you ever want to know what envy looks like in the eyes of a famous pop star, I'm now in a position to tell you.

'Dream Into Action', the album, is out in March, and he's very pleased with it. There'll be a tour to follow with the initial dates in Scotland and Ireland. It's not a one-man show. For example, Trevor Morris will be looking after the drum parts on a proper kit... as proper as any kit can be when it's built to be played standing up.

Where does it come from, all this music? He can't really say. There are no powerfully influential bands hollering out the chords from the back of his memory. When pressed he admits to an admiration of Keith Emerson and of trying to learn his early riffs, but otherwise... maybe it's just all the radio he's listened to over the years. "It's a bit of a mistake, really, copying other people. That's what I could never understand about classical musicians, just playing other people's stuff forever.

"You should," he concludes, "be pursuing your own, original thing. Be satisfied with yourself."


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Yamaha D1500

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Aria Wildcat


One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

 

One Two Testing - Mar 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Interview by Paul Colbert

Previous article in this issue:

> Yamaha D1500

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